It was the third night she’d had the dream. A shadowy figure in a vacant, glowing abyss. It beckoned to her. Called her name without uttering a sound. And this time, she’d almost answered. She woke up in a cold sweat and called out for her mother, only to slowly realize she lived alone and her mom was likely where she’d always been; back in Vermont, asleep with the remote in her hand. She took a deep breath and walked to the bathroom, flipping the switch. The flickering fluorescent light buzzed to life. Well, half-life was more accurate. She turned on the cold water and hung her head, rubbing the constant crick in her neck.
A shift caused her to whip around. Had the door moved? Of course not. She was being silly. Nightmares, as terrible as they could be, couldn’t follow her into reality. She opened the medicine cabinet, looking for anything that would help lull her into a small coma. She wanted dreamless sleep. Her hand never left the medicine cabinet door. She stared for too long. She waited for too long. She felt a shiver run up the most vulnerable skin of her neck. She slammed the medicine cabinet door closed and there on the other side was-
This trope, you guys. This. Trope. It’s number four on my undefined-top-ten-list -that-I’ve-just-made-up-in-my-head-right-now of tropes that trope my brain all up. If you want me to feel like my fear is going to bust outta my skin, put this scene in a movie. That anticipation is alllllmost too much for my lil’ scaredy cat heart to take. But it’s also so damned effective. I’m like…watching a horror movie (because I apparently love to torture myself and hate sleep), and it starts happening and I’m like “damnit…it’s happening…yup…here’s the door thing…close the door…close the door….closethedoor closethedoor…DON’T CLOSE THE DOOR…BAH!”
Now, there are two things that can happen, right? There’s either something there (option A), or there isn’t (option B). And while I know both are probably equally prevalent in this genre we call horror, I’m shunning option A because I think it sucks. There should never be anything there. It’s ruined when something is there. If you don’t agree with me, that’s fine and I respect your opinion, but you’re 100% wrong.
So, this specific trope falls under a wider category of trope often referred to as ‘The Unreveal’. In broad terms: it appears that a reveal is being set up… but there’s no reveal in the end. (Kind of like the entirety of Lost.) However, in my opinion, there’s something really specific about THIS set-up. The Unreveal can be used in all genres and can cause an array of reactions in its audience from hilarity ensuing, to doom prevailing, but this is a specific and often-used trope which has kinda alluded me on the interwebs. In fact, in trying to research a specific name for this trope, I think Google diagnosed me with Schizophrenia (Note to Self: don’t type “when you think something is there but it isn’t” into a search bar and expect any help on this front). So, I decided to give myself permission to name it because tropes really belong to the universe. Imma call it…’Behind Door #1…’
What is it about specifically anticipating something or someone on the other side of an open door and THEN having nothing there in the end that shivers our timbers?
Well, it all has to do with those inherent, invisible tricksters floating around inside our brains: instincts. When we were all extra hairy and mostly naked, fear is what kept us alive. We were afraid to walk into a dark cave at night because we remember that last time Cavey Joe walked into a different cave, saber-toothed-kill-machine pounced him to death. You could almost think of fear as a catalogue of all of the terrible outcomes our species have witnessed since the dawn of the Australopithecus.
I started my rabbit-hole-Google-searching (or research, as some may call it) by connecting anticipation to fear. I mean, this was a logical connection to me. What I’ve learned however, is that I’m super wrong. Anticipation is most often categorized as a joyful emotion. Joyful. I’m like…what? Anticipation makes me feel like I might die at any moment unless the situation is resolved. I thought anticipation was connected specifically to dread. Guess what? It’s connected to excitement. Mind. Blown.
But not really. Because when I sat here and thought about it for five minutes, it made complete sense. While anticipation causes stressor signals to overload your brain, it’s often because your joy has nowhere to go until there is a release, and you can explode that joy all over (gross), or a reveal so you can finally understand.
Keeping all of that in mind, here’s what makes Behind Door #1… such a terrifying trope: you don’t get the release. You don’t GET the reveal. You don’t resolve your anticipation. It takes all of the built-up, subconscious joy and excitement, and extinguishes it like a forgotten ember. It prolongs the anticipation while simultaneously killing it. And we hate not knowing. We, as a species, absolutely hate not having the answer. That’s a really great thing that has propelled us exorbitantly quickly (in the grand scheme of things) into an age in which I could ask a guy in Papua New Guinea what his favorite butterfly is, and he could answer me in seconds, without either one of us having to put on pants or leave our homes. But, it’s also something that works against us. Something that prolongs the quick reactions we developed to survive the Earth, and makes them internal and lasting.
And dudes, I don’t know if you know this, but we’re not meant to feel prolonged stress. We developed the ability to feel stress because it heightens our senses and our adrenaline levels so we can sprint away from tigers, not so we can psychologically disturb ourselves on purpose. But hey…evolution, am I right?
The second part of the effectiveness of this trope is really simple. We fear what we can’t see. If we can’t see it, we can’t prepare for it. ‘Member the tiger I keep talkin’ about? Well she learned to hide in the bushes. And she learned that, because we (and several other animals) can’t see her in the bushes. And if we can’t see her, we can’t anticipate her.
“BUT MADDIE! You said this was all about anticipation! If you say it’s about not seeing aren’t you contradicting yourself?”
No, I’m not. Relax. This is what ties it all together. WE’RE not experiencing the situation. We’re watching the situation happen to someone else. Which means we have a split viewpoint – an advantage they don’t have, with which we can’t do anything. We are able to simultaneously anticipate a monster behind the door and empathize with the character being oblivious to this anticipation. And that is where the dread comes in. We marry this prolonged anticipation with the inability to see ‘the monster’ with knowing the character isn’t feeling the anticipation they should be feeling. They don’t know what we know…and then, we don’t know it. We’re wrong. We. Are. Wrong.
And that makes this trick genius. It’s a trope for a reason: it works. It plays at why we’re afraid of everything in this brilliantly contradictory way. On one side of the coin, we fear when we can’t see what’s ahead. The other side? We fear when what we see ahead, isn’t revealed. We end up predicting ghosts of danger. Running from tigers nowhere to be found. And when we’re wrong in that moment, dread wraps around our heart strings. Because that just means it’s going to happen later. And it’s going to be worse the longer we have to wait. It’s always just on the other side of the door. It’s there. You can feel it. It’s the static in the hairs on your arm…it’s the moments void of sound…it’s the second right before-
Is the anticipation killing you?
Notable Behind Door #1…Moments:
- Stir of Echoes
- The Grudge
- Jennifer’s Body
Fear Factor Scale: 8